As we approach Rosh HaShanah, it is the traditional time for all Jews to take stock of what they have accomplished and where they are headed as an individuals and as part of the community. This past year, the added challenges of COVID-19 have certainly shifted our mindsets. The new reality has made us appreciate the simple things, like being able to daven in shul, attend a simchah, or send our children to school. COVID-19 has been a lesson in not taking things for granted. While we can certainly be grateful for the many positive developments of late, there is an even more pressing and dangerous reality impacting the future survival of our community. That reality is assimilation.
Assimilation has been peeking through the window for some time. It is now a true and present danger. Assimilation is not a new pandemic, but an ongoing and pervasive problem that is essentially hiding in plain sight. We have a collective responsibility to shed our complacency and stare the problem in the eye.
I emigrated from Uzbekistan, back in 1979. It was my good fortune to be introduced to Judaism in a positive way and uphold the Torah lifestyle gifted to me by my family. Most of the Bukharian community does not have that luxury. Despite the many successes of our community, the stark facts speak for themselves. Merely 20 percent of Bukharian youth receive a yeshivah education. A large percentage do not attend synagogue regularly.
The Bukharian community is at a crossroads. Growing up, we rarely saw people intermarry. Now, it is increasingly more common, and everyone has relatives at great risk of intermarriage and assimilation. The overwhelming majority of Emet college students report with great candor of at least one family member or close friend who is seriously dating a non-Jew, or has already intermarried, Rachamana litzlan. We can observe the Bukharian American Jewish community slowly disappear, like so many other Jews in America, or we can take a stance and take action. Let’s do that before the window of opportunity closes.
The trajectory follows a predictable pattern. Immigrants enter American shores with hope and a determination to succeed. The American dream is achieved with hard work, financial success, educational opportunities for children, and eventual integration into the top tiers of society. Religion is relegated as lower priority. The tragic assimilation of Jewish immigrants in the early and mid-20th century is a portent for the future. History provides a “crystal ball” to see the inevitable outcome. We urgently need to chart a different course for Bukharian Jews. The good news is that there is a real opportunity for the Bukharian community to surmount this situation.
History does not have to repeat itself!
Emet Outreach has been addressing this issue for 17 years in the heart of the Bukharian community in Queens. On the ground, on Queens and other New York City campuses, rabbis and educators guide unaffiliated students to embrace their Jewish identity. A major lesson that COVID-19 has shown us is that today’s youth are more receptive than ever to Judaism. When colleges shuttered their doors, Emet shifted to online classes and the virtual learning exploded. Our students welcomed Torah learning and deepened their connection to Hashem during this sensitive time. Many made significant, recent strides in their commitment to Shabbos.
The imperative is upon us individually and collectively as Queens residents. Refer a college-age student or young professional to Emet and other local outreach organizations. Invite unaffiliated family members and neighbors for Shabbos and Yom Tov meals. We are in this together. We need to redouble our efforts to reach as many young Bukharians as possible. We have to fight to ensure Bukharian Jewish continuity. Wouldn’t it be sad if thousands of years of history disappeared simply because we didn’t have the courage and commitment as a community to confront assimilation?
I write this as a Bukharian Jew, but the message is the same for all Jews of all backgrounds. Let this be the beginning of the conversation and a year of taking action. May it be a year of health and of clarity for the Jewish people. I wish everyone a shanah tovah and a K’sivah VaChasimah Tovah.
By Rabbi Nissim Musheyev
Emet Outreach Director
of Community Development